It was lost on the night of bombardment before the first landing, lost in the first hour on the beach, lost on each of the two hundred and forty-five days that followed, lost in the planning at Whitehall, lost in the choice of the deranged Ian Hamilton, lost in the luck of getting the genius Ataturk as our principal foe.
It was the largest amphibious operation in world history then and we lost it early and often and five thousand of our men were killed there and ten thousand crippled and twenty thousand sent half-mad with what they saw and survived. Dick Casey, Bert Facey, Clem Attlee, Compton McKenzie, Leon Gellert came home from it and God knows how many young men of equal worth like Rupert Brooke stayed on to moulder in shallow graves and be eaten by dogs and fill the dreams of the girlfriends and sisters and mothers they never came home to, sneaking out in the boats at night in gently falling snow with their mates on Christmas Eve.
It was a bloody debacle and a murderous waste and its failure meant the First World War killed twenty million more young men to no good end and World War 2 came then as a consequence. And I and my father and thirty million subsequent Australians were told it was a kind of triumph.
In a spin exercise as enormous as the one that followed the Crucifixion we were told it was Australia’s ‘coming of age’, the ‘finest sons’ of a ‘new young nation’ proving what we could do – die pointlessly in Churchill’s incompetent conception of a knock-out blow, a back door to victory.
And many of us believed it, the audacious, denialist spin that a battle ill lost from which no good came was worth being in because it ‘tested our mettle’ and ‘showed what game young men can do’.
Paul Keating, launching Graham Freudenberg’s Churchill and Australia said Australia didn’t have to prove anything. It already had the highest standard of living in the world, along with female suffrage, pensions, exemplary health care, a literate working class, good writers, athletes, musicians, painters, cartoonists. What was there to prove? That we could perish bravely in war, that great game of drongos?
‘I have never gone to Gallipoli,’ Keating said, ‘and I never will. Kokoda is more my speed. There we fought, and won, a long battle that made a difference to our nation’s future. That saved us from something, as Gallipoli never did.’
I have often thought since then that Australia’s Picasso, Gershwin, Hemingway, Eliot, Frank Lloyd Wright, Jack Dempsey, Nye Bevan, Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, Charles Chaplin, died on Gallipoli probably, or came home too limbless and smashed of soul to attempt the careers they might have had. Twenty or thirty thousand of their sons and daughters were never born. Two or three thousand of the girls that waited for them only to read their names on a post office wall, never themselves had children, or grandchildren, a hundred thousand of whom might be retiring now after useful, talented, civic lives.
And yet we are asked to celebrate this now, to ‘honour’ a ‘sacrifice’ that ‘had to be made’. It was a battle that should never have been planned and should never have been fought. It gave Turkey a nation-founding hero and us a century of bloodstained hypocrisy, ending hopefully soon.
Death should never be celebrated. It is too big a defeat. It is celebrated by men like Howard and Rudd and Bush and Blair and Bin Laden who do not believe in death and think it only a moment before the story continues, among angel choirs on green meadows with lions and lambs at play together. It is celebrated by pious dimwits, not men and women of intellect; not any more.
Some realism, to be sure, now attends Anzac Day as it didn’t when I was young. It is more a song of mourning now than a hymn of praise. But we would do as well to celebrate with marches and brass bands and bugles and flags the Myall Creek Massacre or the Granville Train Disaster or the Newcastle Earthquake or the Port Arthur Slaughter (on Anzac Day), or Black Saturday, or Ash Wednesday, as we do this holocaust of blood where more men died than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together, on both sides, in their youth, in the first of their strength, forever. And are not looking down on us now.
Spin has come a long way since then. We believe almost anything now. That Afghans will want to go back to the valleys where their brothers and fathers were killed, now the ‘situation has improved’. That Sri Lankans yearn to be home among ethnic cleansing. That men and women as brave as boat people are will not be good citizens and should be sent home, like my friends the Bakhtiyaris, to die at the hands of their enemies or join their cause as suicide bombers.
That it’s worth bombing a village to save its women from cruel marriages. That the drug-running Karzai brothers are worth dying for. That it’s worth immolating a country for any cause. That sending young men to gaol is a useful thing to do. That the Catholic Church’s good points outweigh its pederasty. That Christ rose from the dead and hears our every whispered prayer and is interceding for us, every one of us, in a heavenly court right now. That chasing stolen cars does more good than harm. That Sol Trujillo was worth the money we paid him.
Spin lives, and it continues. In our Anzac Day Last Post it lives and marches on. And gathers more and more good people into its great implacable cause, pointless death and needless suffering. Discuss.